By Geonn Cannon
Don't Be That Jackass
During the entire meal, only two other couples were seated in the special dining area, but they had been placed strategically so each party was as far as possible from the others. Alex had insisted Rachel order the goat eyes, refusing to tell her what they were. When they arrived, Alex fed one of the grilled mushrooms to her date, laughing when Rachel snapped at her fingers.
Over their salads, Alex discussed her parents, her time in the academy and some of the more memorable pranks she'd played and that had been played on her. Rachel, in turn, told about her family and residency during the main course.
Halfway through the meal, Rachel excused herself to use the restroom. The waitress pointed her to a small corridor branching off the main dining area. She told Alex she'd be right back and weaved through the tables, taking time to gaze at all the marvelous memorabilia throughout the restaurant. There were dozens of framed newspaper stories. Most of the stories showed the hometown boys and girls in action, but some were of historic fires: The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Tillamook Burn of Oregon, the burning of Atlanta in 1864.
There were hoses on the walls, long hooks and various oxygen masks. Rows of helmets circled the wall just below the ceiling, representing the various companies in Shepherd.
When she turned the corner for the bathroom, she caught sight of the most elaborate piece of memorabilia. The wall between the men's room and the women's was dominated by a full firefighter uniform. The helmet was flat against the wall, the crown facing out. The rest of it was arranged as if an invisible man were occupying the pants and jacket.
Rachel stepped up to it, looking up and imagining she could smell the smoke coming off the material. On either side of the suit hung more framed newspaper clippings from the local paper detailing rescues and fires. She recognized a few of the names - Leary and Franklin jumped out at her - but saw no mention of Alex in any of them. She was about to read one of the articles when she remembered why she had gotten up in the first place. Casting a final glance at the phantom fireman, she went into the ladies room.
By the time Rachel paid - she insisted and actually slapped Alex's hand when she reached for the check - the restaurant had mostly cleared out. They thanked the hostess and headed out into the night. Rachel immediately hugged herself against the cold wind. Alex put her arm around her date, amazed at how automatic the move already was. She kissed Rachel's temple as they parted to get into the Jeep.
Rachel scanned the empty parking lot and said, "Wow, how long were we sitting there talking?"
Alex checked her watch. "It's almost ten."
Rachel whistled. "I'm so sorry! I didn't realize I was being such a chatterbox!"
"Yes, well, you should have paid attention to all my complaints," Alex grinned.
Rachel put her head back, closed her eyes and let herself sway with the motion of the car as Alex drove her home. When the Jeep came to a stop, she pretended to be asleep just to see what Alex would do. She felt the other woman's knuckles brush her cheek, felt a hand cup the side of her head. "Hey," Alex said softly.
She opened her eyes and said, "Am I home?"
"I got you here safely," Alex said. The streetlight on the corner illuminated half of Alex's face and gave her a halo. She let Alex open the car door for her and they walked inside together. As they waited by the elevator, Rachel said, "I had a great time. We're going to have to try Vollie's again."
"We?" Alex said, smiling and raising an eyebrow. "So, with you cooking for me next week, would that be our third date?"
Rachel grinned and said, "Mm, I don't know. We did have that coffee. Maybe it would be our fourth."
Alex touched Rachel's cheek and leaned down. She caught Rachel's bottom lip with both of hers and turned them both until Rachel's back was to the wall. Rachel cupped the back of Alex's head and moaned softly as she angled her mouth against Alex's. They held each other for a moment before they parted. Rachel's tongue flitted out and touched her top lip as she sank back to her regular height. "Hum," she said. She smiled dreamily and looked up at Alex.
"Was that okay?"
"Hum, ho, yes," Rachel said, looking up at Alex. "Yeah. Yeah, that was... yeah."
Alex smiled. "Well... you made me speechless at the beginning of the night. Looks like we're even."
"Looks like," Rachel said. The elevator doors opened with a ding and Rachel sighed. "I'd invite you in for tea, but... we probably wouldn't end up drinking very much tea."
"What makes you so sure?"
"I don't have any tea."
Alex laughed and kissed Rachel again, just to the left of her eyebrow. "That's okay. I really should get home and rest."
"Just so long as you *want* to come upstairs," Rachel said teasingly.
Alex touched a loose strand of Rachel's hair and bent down to kiss her again. She slid her hand from Rachel's shoulder, down to the small of her back and settled her fingers just above the curve of her ass. Her tongue flicked against Rachel's teeth, her arms tightening around the other woman before releasing her. Rachel staggered back a step, touched her bottom lip and nodded. "Okay. So you're willing to come upstairs."
"When you're ready for me," Alex said softly.
Rachel rose again and kissed the corner of Alex's mouth. "I'll call you about next week."
"Thank you for dinner."
"Thank you for asking me out."
Rachel laughed and stepped into the elevator. As the doors began to close, Alex put her hand out and stopped it. "Oh! I meant to ask... I know it's kind of weird, but Jones's funeral is tomorrow. I'll understand if you don't want to go, it being a funeral and all, but..."
"I would love to be there for you," Rachel said solemnly. "Just give me a call and let me know where and when."
"Great," Alex said. She thought and added, "You know, we've basically just booked ourselves into at least a month-long relationship."
Rachel laughed. "I'll restrain my cry of horror until I'm safely in my apartment."
They exchanged their good-nights and Alex stepped back. She hated feeling needy, but she was sad even before the elevator doors fully closed. Once the doors bumped shut and the lights faded, indicating that Rachel was on her way up, Alex headed for the lobby. She made it as far as the stairs.
With little thought as to how it would look, she suddenly dashed to her left. She used the banister to whip herself around at each landing, taking the stairs three at a time, huffing and puffing until she came to a stop outside the fourth floor elevators. She made it with nearly a whole second to spare. The doors opened on Rachel's smiling face and she stepped forward before she realized there was someone in front of her.
Alex pushed Rachel against the elevator wall and kissed her. She didn't care that she was sweating or how hard her heart was beating. Rachel put her hands on Alex's forearms and leaned into the kiss. Finally, Alex pulled away and said, "Sorry. Had to... do that..."
"Do you need mouth-to-mouth?" Rachel asked with a laugh.
Alex smiled. She stepped back and said, "Good night, Rachel."
"Good night, Alex."
She leaned against the wall and let Rachel leave, for real this time. The elevator doors closed on her this time and she touched her lips. All in all, a marvelous date.
The night was still freezing, but she felt it a little more since she was alone. She climbed into the Jeep, wishing she'd brought a jacket, and started the engine. As the heater started to circulate warm air, she stared down at the LCD radio display and smiled. "A relationship," she muttered. Who would've thought?
She started the car and pulled away from the curb. She barely noticed the ride home or the trek up to her apartment. She moved like a sleepwalker and dropped onto the edge of her bed in a state of bliss. She saw the blinking light on her answering machine, meaning she had a message, but decided to ignore it. Anything worth hearing was worth waiting until the morning.
Murray came into the chief's office the next morning as Alex was signing in. She glanced up at him catching his quizzical look. "What's up, Murray?"
"What the hell happened to your hair?"
"Jealous?" she asked as she walked out of the room. She jumped up to slap his bald dome as she passed him.
Murray scribbled his name into the log and hurried to catch up with her. "No, I can't tell what's different. Did you... did you cut it?"
"I changed it a little," Alex said. "I had a... a thing last night."
This only served to confuse Murray further. "What kind of thing? The Fireman's Ball isn't until January, right? What kind of thing did you have?"
Alex rolled her eyes and went into the den, dropping onto the sofa. Bugs Riley was already there, having gained control of the remote and refusing to hand it over. Some Oprah-clone was on, talking about relationships and how there's no "me" in "relationship." Alex made a face and said, "This is what we're watching?"
"Better than what Sawyer had in mind," Bugs assured her.
Alex had no doubt about that and put her feet up on the table. Murray stepped over her legs and sat across from her, staring hard. "Hey, Bugs, you're a woman."
"God, he's observant," Bugs wondered.
"What the hell did Crawford do to her hair?"
Bugs glanced over and said, "She got highlights, I think. Right?"
Alex shrugged, smiling a little.
"Did you have a... a *date*?" Murray asked, eyes gleaming.
"Murray..." she said, hoping she sounded threatening.
Bugs slid to the edge of the couch, suddenly intrigued. "Ooh, gossip... I love it. Who was the lucky guy?"
Murray barked a laugh and said, "With Crawford, every guy on the planet Earth is the lucky guy."
Alex slapped his leg and Murray hooted, rubbing the spot where she'd hit him.
"What?" Bugs asked.
"It wasn't a guy," Murray said in a stage-whisper.
"Wayne!" Alex hissed, unleashing the man's seldom-used first name. It was the equivalent of a mother using all three names to call her child. He jumped as if she'd slapped his face, eyes wide. "Would you please...?"
He held up his hands. "I'm sorry, Alex."
Alex sighed and shrugged. She looked at Bugs and held her hands out. "It was a woman."
"Oh," Bugs said. Realization finally dawned on her face on she leaned back. "Oh, I see. Well... uh, w-what did... oh, I'm sorry, I didn't..."
Murray scratched the back of his head and tried to make a dignified exit, muttering "Excuse me," as he stepped over Alex's legs. He was halfway out of the den before he turned around. "Hey, Alex... didn't you wanna talk to Leary about something?"
"Right," Alex said, half-forgetting the arsonist in the afterglow of her first date with Rachel. "Is he here?"
She stood and followed Murray into the apparatus bay, surprised to see Leary was speaking with the second person she'd been trying to contact. Fire Marshal Bill Von Elm was standing with the Chief in the garage door. Von Elm was an older man with a shock of white hair rising from the crown of his head. It was swept back, reminding her of an aging rooster. He had a pair of round eyeglasses perpetually perched on the edge of his nose, his pear-shaped middle threatening every belt she'd ever seen him wear.
She approached carefully, giving Leary the opportunity to see her and wave her off if necessary. He glanced over and, instead of asking for a moment, motioned her forward. "Crawford. Bill tells me you were trying to get hold of him this weekend."
"Yeah, and you, too, Chief," Alex said.
"Oh. I had a..."
"It's all right, I know," Alex interrupted him. She looked at Von Elm and said, "But if this is a bad time..."
Von Elm shook his head. "No, we were actually trying to find you last night. What do you know about Martin Lancaster?"
Alex blinked. Of all the questions she expected, this was nowhere on the list. "Well... uh, I don't know much. He inherited his father's development company a few years back. Guess it's been about a decade or so now. He's maybe overly concerned with fire inspections..."
"Has a little crush on you, doesn't he?" Leary asked.
Alex stifled a groan. She was hoping this would never come up. "Well... he likes me. Requests me to do the routine inspections of his new buildings. Did something happen to him?"
"No, no," Von Elm said. "He came into the office today, had some information about the last two fires. Apparently, both of the buildings were Lancaster Development projects back in the day. They were built before he took over, but he thought there might be some kind of connection."
"Have you determined the fires were set?" Leary asked.
"Looks that way. Gas all over the place, down the stairs, in pretty much every nook and cranny. The back doors in both buildings were forced open, so we're thinking a group or two groups of kids were messing around, wanted to see a building burn. You guys have any kids in your lookie-loos?"
"Who knows?" Leary sighed. "I stopped paying attention a long time ago."
"I didn't see anyone," Alex said. "Lancaster thinks someone is targeting his buildings specifically?"
Von Elm shrugged. "Yeah, well, he's probably just paranoid." He sniffed and leaned against the wall. "Does he strike you as the kind of guy someone would target?"
Alex sighed. "I don't know... I don't think so. He's a pest, but going to these lengths just to get back at him or annoy him? I doubt it."
"Well, just kind of wanted a character witness, you know. Make sure we weren't just dismissing it out of hand." He shook Leary's hand, making it disappear within his own meaty mitt and nodded at Alex. "Nice to see you again, Ms. Crawford."
Alex said good-bye to him and walked with Leary towards his office. "That take care of what you called me about?" he asked.
"Not really," Alex admitted. She waited until they were behind the truck, lowering her voice to keep anyone from overhearing. "I wanted to talk to you about the possibility that Lancaster isn't the target of these fires. *We* might be."
Leary frowned. "What makes you say that?" he asked as he guided her towards her office. He shut the door behind them and offered her a seat on the couch while he headed behind the desk.
"Jones was killed in a flashover. Wizell was injured in one, but it was a midget in comparison."
"You're certain it was a flashover?" Leary asked.
Alex nodded. "I saw the smoke seeping in around the door, but it was too late to do anything about it. As soon as he's had time to go over the investigation, I want to ask Von Elm about the rooms where the flashover started."
"Well, if you're thinking the fires were flashovers, you already know what the rooms looked like; trash on top of trash, probably on top of old furniture, all of it on fire. It ate up all the oxygen in the room and when Wizell and Jones opened the doors..." He let his words trail off.
"It's not the floor plan I'm interested in," she said. "It'll probably look normal, but if you look at it from the point of view of someone setting a trap..."
Alex pressed her lips together. "Wizell was only burnt. It was bad, yes. But he survived and he'll be back in a weeks."
"Actually, a couple of days," Leary corrected. "But that doesn't mean anything. I've been in most every house you have and I know what you've seen. Piles of newspaper, piles of clothes, chimneys that have never had the dignity of being cleaned... half the people in this town are living in tinderboxes without even knowing it. If you were looking specifically for a trap, every one of those fires would look suspicious."
"It's not just the flashover part. I'll concede that the majority of rooms I've seen have been less than fire-safe. But the escalation... surely you have to see that. The second fire, less than a day later, was like the first one on steroids. Someone was watching and saw that they didn't have enough oomph behind their blast. So they doubled up and made sure they took someone out."
"Okay, say this is true. We're trained to see things like evidence of a flashover. They're supposed to see it like a big, flashing neon sign that says 'stay out.' Unless he was..." He caught himself and looked away.
Alex picked up. "Unless he was counting on someone screwing up or letting the probie go first."
"I didn't say that."
"Doesn't make it any less true. I know I screwed up, Chief. Jones is dead because of me and I have to live with that. Maybe whoever set the fire knows enough to set the trap, but not enough to know we look for those signs. Maybe he didn't realize the trap would be so obvious."
"You're saying he just got lucky with Jones?"
As much as it sickened her to admit, Alex nodded and said, "Yes. The fact that I let Jones go in first played right into this sick bastard's plan."
Leary rested his chin in his hand, staring blankly at the wall above her head. "Okay. So this guy isn't targeting Lancaster, he's trying to kill firefighters. Why?"
"We won't know why until we know who. Maybe not even then."
"Okay. Then get Holt down here and get everyone into the kitchen. Gonna have a little meeting."
She stood. "Where is Holt?"
"Weight room," Leary said.
She whistled. "Again?"
Leary shrugged. "Some say he only took Weasel's shifts so he could use our stuff."
Alex laughed and headed out, gathering Bugs and Murray before heading to the stairs to grab Holt off the bench press. He grunted when she told him there was a meeting in the kitchen and he followed her like a trained bear. As she took her seat at the table, Leary clapped both hands together and said, "All right, the reason I asked you all here..."
"One of us killed old lady Hargrove for her fortune," Murray said with a surprisingly convincing British accent.
Before Leary could say anything in reply, the alarm began to sound. Captain Franklin, again fielding the calls, intoned the information of address and situation. Nothing major, but enough that the ladder and engine were both going. Alex slid into her bunkers like a second skin, climbed onto the truck and took her regular seat.
As the truck pulled from the garage, she took a look around and saw half of her crew had been replaced since their last shift. Robert Holt was in Wizell's normal position up front, while Bugs Riley was sitting next to her in the back of the cab. It felt foreign, as if she was hitching a ride with a bunch of strangers.
Murray, however, made it feel like home. He pounded the roof and whooped, making Alex smile and making Holt blanch slightly. The radio crackled and Leary came over the air. "Okay, I'm going to have to do it this way. I want everyone to be on their toes on this call. We lost two guys this week; I'm not losing any more."
"You heard Franklin, Chief," Murray called back. "Gas leak. Easy-peasy."
"They're all easy until some jackass lets his guard down." He paused and then added, "Don't be that jackass, Murray."
Murray laughed and said, "I will do my level best, Chief."
Ignoring Murray's laughter up front, Alex checked her helmet to make sure it was held tight. Securing the strap, she prayed that staying safe would be as simple as paying a little extra attention for a while. A little hyper-vigilance never hurt anyone. She crossed her fingers and took a cue from Jones, closing her eyes to whisper a quick prayer.
The gas leak was routine stuff. Get the engine in the street, go door to door and get the people out, sit around and wait for the gas company to come out and fix the problem. After evacuating a few apartments, Alex and Bugs started venturing inside to open a few windows to air out the building. They repeated all the information they had over and over again as they ushered the residents out of their homes and down the stairs.
"It's all right, ma'am," Alex was saying, helping an old lady step out of her apartment. "Your knitting will still be there when you get back."
"Well, that Mr. Preston a few doors down... he sometimes likes to get into things that aren't his... you'll take care of that, right, Officer? You'll make sure he doesn't take anything of mine?"
Alex nodded, not bothering to correct the woman. If the first five corrections hadn't stuck... She simply said, "Mr. Preston will be escorted out just like you are. We're getting everyone out and then my friend and I will come out, too. All right? All your stuff will be fine."
"Okay, but if Mr. Preston gets back in first, he better not come into my apartment."
"If he robs you, call the police station and ask for Officer Alex, okay?"
Bugs stifled a laugh, pulling the old woman's door shut. Once the resident was waddling down the stairs, Alex turned and exhaled, shaking her head. "Little old lady thinks her afghan is the Holy Grail or something."
"Amazing," Bugs muttered. She followed Alex up to the next level. "Tell people their home is in danger of bursting into flames and they suddenly have all this stuff they have to do. Do they just not get that, if the apartment explodes, it won't matter if their clothes are in the washing machine or not?"
"It's the 'never-happen-to-me' syndrome," Alex said. "No one believes it will be *their* building because that only happens in the movies and on the news. It's up to us to impart reality to them."
Bugs sighed and said, "Yeah, well, it'd be much easier to just stand on the street with a megaphone and say 'Come out now! We'll meet you down here and offer you cookies.'"
Alex laughed. At daytime, low-danger calls like this, more often than not, housewives and older women in the neighborhood brought out cookies, lemonade and other refreshments for the firefighters with nothing better to do. The older women were looking for someone to mother, while the housewives were checking out the hot male firefighters. "Oh, yeah. What do you bet Murray rushes through his part and bogarts all the cookies?"
"I'm not taking that bet," Bugs said. They reached the landing and branched out, each heading to a different apartment.
They knocked and simultaneously called, "Fire department!"
Despite the disparaging tone most people adopted when speaking about it, Rachel loved taking the bus. It gave her time to read or, on days when her shift was particularly relentless, take a quick nap. This morning - or afternoon, really, since it was inching towards three - she was heading home after spending a hectic morning shift trying to reign in a man who'd accidentally shot himself with a nail gun. She was taking the time to enjoy a great novel she had recently stumbled over.
She was so eagerly enjoying her current chapter that she hardly noticed how long they had been sitting at what she assumed to be a red light. She finally looked up when the man in front of her turned around and sighed, "Can you believe this?"
She marked her place in the book when she realized he was speaking directly to her. She looked around and asked, "Why? What's going on?"
"Firemen have the whole street shut down. Traffic's backed up... it's going to take forever to clear this mess up." He checked his watch and slumped against the seat, turning to look fully at her. "This is just irritating, you know... I've got a big meeting to get to and, wouldn't you know it, my Lexus picks today to break down."
Rachel smiled. "Aw. I'll be sure to tell my girlfriend what a terrible, terrible day you had." When he turned back around to face front, she slid out of her seat and moved to the opposite side to look down at the disturbance.
Firefighters were swarming around a brownstone a few hundred yards ahead, beyond the roadblock. She couldn't make out many details, but if she squinted she could just barely make out the names on the backs of their coats. She spotted a Riley and Murray - with his size, he was almost unmistakable, even at this distance - and...
There! She spotted a slender woman exit the building and stand with Murray and Riley. Something in the way she moved, as the old song said, but the coat confirmed it: Crawford. That was Alex! She smiled and resisted the urge to slap the window like some giddy schoolgirl trying to get her crush's attention. The bus inched forward and she moved her head as a light pole moved in to disturb her view. Alex spoke with her coworkers for a few moments and then headed down the sidewalk towards the traffic jam.
"She's walking this way!" Rachel whispered.
"Who?" the alleged Lexus-owner asked.
As the two firefighters approached, Rachel was surprised to see that Riley was also a woman. She could tell that she and Alex were talking, but the distance was too great to make out any words. When the two women made it within three car lengths of the bus, Rachel reached up to open the window and shout before she thought better of it. She'd never seen Alex at work, never seen her in full uniform for that matter. The urge to spy on her was almost too great to pass up.
Two men in jumpsuits from the gas company met them halfway and the little group paused next to the bus driver's window. Alex seemed close enough to touch, but she looked like such a different woman. The helmet overshadowed her face, the high collar of her coat reached up and brushed her cheek when she turned to indicate the building.
As Alex and Riley turned to lead the gas company men down the street, Rachel felt a surge of pride. She felt like every proud parent who had ever seen their child in a school play, every sideline father who saw his son score the winning touchdown. She wanted to grab the Lexus-jerk and point out the window and tell him that was her girlfriend.
That was her girlfriend.
To be continued in Chapter Eight
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